Article 25

Free Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant’

In Uncategorized on 09/12/2012 at 4:55 pm


Portia and Shylock. Photo by Jennifer Clarke.


A cruel comedy

By Charlie Goetz


Among the free stuff available in the area are the “products” of a mostly youthful Dayton-based outfit, Free Shakespeare, founded three years ago by its artistic director, one Chris Shea.

Shea piloted a mostly worthy production of The Bard’s somewhat controversial comedy, The Merchant of Venice, on display at the Tower Park amphitheater in Fort Thomas, Ky., Aug. 7. Post-show donations were accepted, but, true to the company’s name, no admission was charged.

Several outdoor Dayton-area venues were announced as show sites for the week of Aug. 12.

Billed as “professional,” Free Shakespeare offered a bare-bones Merchant, its Venetian and Belmont settings furnished with folding chairs and a ladder and a length of rope as a variously used prop. Characters were identified by names printed boldly on blue T-shirts. Suggestions of Elizabethan puffy sleeves rounded out the costuming.

Once the sun set, lighting became problematic. Overhead stage lights created “specials” illuminating sections of the playing area, but because actors frequently failed to “find their light,” they were often in shadow.

None of the make-do visuals much diminished the performing, which went cantering over the highlights of the dark comedy pitting Jewish moneylender Shylock against blatantly anti-Semitic Christians suddenly in need of his services. The title character – the merchant, Antonio, played by a too-young but marvelously articulate and well-surnamed Riley Able – is virtually besotted with his profligate younger friend, Bassanio (Robert Stimmel).

Was the company uncomfortable with the homoerotic undertone of Antonio’s loyalty to Bassanio? Is that why the gratuitous effeminacy of a servant (Jason Antonick) and the male-female pawing that went on at every possible opportunity –  to display conspicuous heterosexuality? Too much “protest”?

Antonick tripled as Shylock’s clownish servant, Lancelot, who cruelly teases his blind father, and a “gaoler.”

Anyhow, Bassanio proposes to discharge his debts to the unnaturally tolerant Antonio by borrowing yet another sum to underwrite courtship of the “richly left” Portia (Chelsey Cavender). The cynicism of this ploy is played down somewhat by Stimmel’s enthusiasm for Portia’s non-commercial attributes.

Those attributes, in addition to her heiress status, have brought to her Belmont estate a raft of wooers who must submit to a kind of shell game designed by her late father to protect the poor little rich girl from fortune hunters. Suitors (Marcus Simmons II as the Prince of Morocco and David Zelmon as the Prince of Aragon) must choose from among three “caskets” – here represented by painted pails – gold, silver and lead, one of which contains Portia’s picture; the others house notes and symbols of rejection.

Portia, it seems, is something of a racist, as well as an anti-Semite. Morocco is black. When his selection proves wrong, she remarks, “Let all of his complexion choose me so.”

Back to business: Antonio is short of “the ready”; his assets are tied up in trading ships. But, rather than fail his great, good friend, he enters into a bargain with Shylock, whom he has previously publicly despised and thwarted commercially, to invest in Bassanio’s amorous enterprise. The canny Shylock, Antonio’s past offenses notwithstanding, proposes a “merry bond” whereby, if the borrower is forfeit, the penalty will be “a pound of your fair flesh.”

Of course Antonio’s ships are reported lost and the “merry bond” turns deadly as Shylock moves to collect, an eventuality that will surely take the merchant’s life.

But not before Bassanio is successful in his pursuit of Portia who – in a tactic bafflingly cut from this presentation – accompanies Bassanio’s caskets’ contemplation with the lyric: “Tell me where is fancy bred/Or in the heart or in the head?/How begot how nourish-ed?” The rhyming words all point to lead, the material of the correct casket. Get it, Folks? This audience didn’t have the opportunity.

Because this bit of manipulation was omitted, Bassanio’s choice of the correct casket seemed entirely love-driven, and, accordingly, spectators applauded his success. The Bard would not have been pleased, methinks.

Word of Antonio’s travail reaches Belmont, and Bassanio and his buddy Gratiano (Justin King) – who has, in the way of comedy, snared Portia’s maid, Nerissa (Leah Strasser) – high-tail it back to Venice and to the court, where Shylock seeks the favorable judgment that will allow him to deal death to Antonio.

Portia and Nerissa also high-tail it back, disguised as young, male professionals, a lawyer and “his” clerk.” (Oh, Will, how many times?) The ruse gives Portia the opportunity to deliver the movingly eloquent “quality of mercy” speech beseeching Shylock to back off. Of course, he doesn’t; but Portia, the consummate manipulator, finds a loophole: ” … take thou thy pound of flesh/But, in the cutting, if thou dost shed/One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods/Are by the laws of Venice confiscate/Unto the state of Venice.”

Shylock is undone. And when it comes their turn to be merciful, the Christians are anything but. They force Shylock to leave everything to his traitorous daughter Jessica (Xander Hildenbrandt), who has run off with yet another young anti-Semite, Lorenzo (Alexander Chilton), robbing her once-doting dad of pretty much everything she can carry away.

But the coup is that they force the straitened old man to become a Christian, thus cutting him off from his community and sending him to his decline in utter isolation.

Shakespeare’s genius is hard at work here. Shylock perverts, to the best of his ability, his Old Testament Law of Justice. But in Shakespeare’s Christian view, the New Testament Law of Love is the greater directive. The Christians’ perversion of that is therefore the greater sin.

Surely The Bard knew what he had done. And he was aware that, to preserve the “comedy” and the comfort of his Christian audience (dramaturge Joanne K. McPortland points out that, because the Jews had been expelled from England in 1290 and not permitted to return until 350 years later, no one in Shakespeare’s theater had actually met a Jew), Shakespeare tacks on the charmingly lyrical Act V, in which the lovers rhapsodize about lost and found rings and other nonsense.

But the primary perversions stand. For all its pejorative, anti-Semitic language, Merchant is a quite even-handed, if depressing, rendition of cultures in conflict, a clash that persists into our own time.

The Free Shakespeare’s Merchant is an engagingly energetic but largely glib exercise – except for Bob Allen’s revelatory Shylock, who prowls the stage like a caged but still predatory panther. Wisely, Allen does not attempt to make Shylock in any way a sympathetic figure.

Apparently unlike his director, Allen trusts the text implicitly and his speeches –  particularly the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” litany – are spot-on. If Free Shakespeare were not – free, that is – Allen’s redemptive performance would be worth the price of admission, whatever that cost.

The Bard would have been pleased, methinks.



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